Parents are bombarded with advice these days about building strong bonds of attachment with their children. It’s natural for loving parents to want to feel close to their kids, but is there such a thing as too much family closeness? Too much involvement or connection?

Studies on families
It turns out that an important key to health and happiness is how family members deal with the two competing needs—for closeness and for distance. Neither is better or more important. In fact, it’s all about striking a balance. Families do best when there’s lots of emotional connection and adequate amounts of emotional autonomy mixed together. Conversely, problems tend to arise when there are either very low or very high levels of connection between family members.

Enough connection
In an ideal family, individuals feel emotional closeness, loyalty, and connection with other family members. Examples include attentive listening, empathy, knowledge of one another’s lives, regular time together, shared activities and information, expressions of warmth and love, play and touch. Rituals of connection like family meals or story time are built into the fabric of daily life. (The bad news? Most of this implies cell phones being put aside!)

Enough autonomy
At the same time, family members in healthy families are encouraged to be unique, independent individuals—to act on their own as is developmentally appropriate, think for themselves, form their own opinions, and have their own feelings and preferences. Each person is seen having a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and liabilities, temperaments and issues. Independence is essential to emotional health.

Examples of too much closeness
When family loyalty requires the sacrifice of individual needs to the group, the sense of “we-ness” overpowers the sense of “I-ness.” Members of enmeshed families finish each other’s sentences, use the word “we” more than “I” when describing themselves, and feel that taking alone time is a betrayal to the others. There is very little separateness. Time together is more important than time alone. There may be fewer outside friendships or activities and personal decisions are forced to take a back seat.

Challenges with emotions
When there is too much closeness, individuals are often overly dependent on each other. There is a lack of personal boundaries and little private space is permitted. Emotions are highly contagious in these types of families. In some cases children can easily be frightened by their own need for independence if they sense that their mom or dad is in a panic when they are out of sight. If one person is sad or angry, everyone else’s mood is affected. In contrast, in a family with better boundaries one member can have a bad day and others can still be happy.

Physical and psychological challenges
Families where there is over-involvement also often have difficulties with physical or psychosomatic illness, and children are typically inhibited (even if in very subtle ways) from progressing along the developmental continuum in a “normal” fashion. They can begin to hold themselves back, sacrificing their autonomy to respond to needs that they perceive in the family. From a clinical standpoint, over-involvement can also lead to “spoiling” a child who can then feel too self-important and ignore the needs and feelings of others.

Case example
A single parent mom was so over-involved with her ten-year-old son that he sat on her lap most of their first therapy session. His symptoms included an inability to do his homework without her sitting next to him, and numerous other examples of his wielding too much power. Most recently he had chased her around the house with scissors when she “had the nerve” to be on the phone for ten minutes. The mom finally realized how her
fear of conflict with her son had been fueled by guilt about her divorce and the disappearance of her ex.

Old “tapes”
Fear is a common companion to people struggling with letting go. Some parents are over-involved with their kids as a result of something they were taught growing up. Certain messages, often learned early, can be floating around unconsciously, yet influencing us nonetheless. Examples include “It’s not safe to let go or else you can lose someone,” or “You will be hurt or punished if you push for freedom.”

Other past fears
Another common pattern of over-involvement develops for parents of children born prematurely or with early health problems or disabilities. It makes sense for a parent with a sickly infant to provide extra attention and support. The challenge occurs when that parent, still living with frightening memories from the past, remains over-involved with that child years later. Breaking this pattern may require some help with processing those feelings.

Assessing childhood family patterns
An effective way to bring awareness to the issues of closeness and distance is by taking a family assessment test. Free copies of assessments and analysis can be found at the link below. These fifty-point questionnaires can help you pinpoint strengths and areas for improvement in your family, as well as to provide clues about where you might be stuck.

Simple steps toward healthier boundaries

• Find a balance between closeness and distance with each member of the family.
• Respect each other’s needs for independence, but also be available for help and support.
• In addition to time together, allow kids to spend time by themselves.
• Keep certain topics and decisions separate from the children or grandparents.
• Stay connected to outside family members and friends.
• Take time for “date nights” or other childfree moments.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
Though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
And stand together yet not too near together;
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

-Kahlil Gibran